HC Deb 11 January 2000 vol 342 cc250-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Allen.]

10.31 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise, briefly, a matter that is of considerable local importance to my constituents living in the Cliftonville area of North Thanet, and has wider implications—to which I shall return—for the whole coastline and water resources of the United Kingdom.

The provision of water to meet the domestic, industrial and agricultural needs of the 21st century and the disposal of sewage and waste water generated by homes, businesses and industries in growing volume is a vexed question that has taxed many good minds.

Tonight, I shall refer specifically to Southern Water's proposals for the expansion of a sewage treatment plant at Foreness Point, and for the discharge of the resulting millions of gallons of high quality effluent daily, through sea outfalls, into the Thames estuary. I shall seek to demonstrate that that waste of potentially recyclable effluent is something that neither Kent nor the United Kingdom can afford.

First, let me set the proposal in context. Since my election in 1983 I have had a good working relationship with Southern Water, which is responsible for the provision of water to two thirds of my constituency, and for the treatment and disposal of waste water throughout the area. In 1983, Southern Water began a process of planning and investment in a new sewage system for Herne Bay, removed the need to discharge sewage through a short Victorian outfall into the sea, dramatically improved the bathing waters, and reduced the risk of flooding in the town centre.

Much sewerage work has also been carried out in the isle of Thanet. I was proud to see the completion at Foreness Point of the then state-of-the-art marine treatment works, and, on 28 April 1989, formally to declare it open. The construction of that plant had generated dirt and dust, and had caused disruption and inconvenience. My constituents bore the inconvenience with fortitude, in the belief that what was being installed would serve the needs of the area for many years to come, and the construction of an inland treatment plant—inaugurated by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales—consolidated that view. To my constituents' horror, however, fresh demands presented by European directives and regulation have rendered the "new" facility at Foreness obsolete within 10 years.

By June 1994, Southern Water was already examining options for further developments to meet the new requirements. In the summer of 1997, it sought waste water works approval, saying that there might be still further development if legislation changes". Giving formal notice of its intentions, Southern Water stated that the alternative of an inland treatment plant at Weatherlees would be "massively more expensive" than Foreness. Notwithstanding the Department's campaign to regard water as a valuable resource and insistence on conservation, everything that has taken place since has been driven not by environmental concerns, or by our water requirements, but by short-term financial expedience.

It quickly became clear that there was massive public objection to the Foreness plan on two grounds-the potential desecration of an area of natural beauty and scientific interest; and, perhaps more significant, proposals to pump millions of gallons of what we are told will be effluent with a high level of environmental protection daily into the sea, when it should be recycled for domestic and industrial use.

The Foreness Point environmental action group, with more than 2,700 members, was formed. Public meetings followed. On 2 October 1997, the Environment Agency (Kent) wrote to the county planning control officer to say: The Environment Agency objects to the proposed development as it stands. The environmental statement by Southern Water fails to give proper attention to alternative uses for treated effluent. No consideration has been given, for example, to options which could contribute materially to the enhancement or conservation of water resources within the Thanet area". That is the crux of the argument. It has national as well as local implications for every coastal site around the country. Is it right, I shall ask again and again, to waste millions of gallons of water that, inland, would certainly be recycled and re-used?

On behalf of Thanet district council, its planning officer wrote on 25 November 1997: The council considers the proposal to be contrary to a wide range of policies within the Kent structure plan and the local District plan … The council would draw attention to PPG Coastal Planning where the special position of the coast is recognised and attention is drawn to the fact that: The coast will seldom be the most appropriate location for developments. Few developments require a coastal location and coastal locations should not be expected to accommodate new development as could be accommodated inland. In this context it has always been the view of the Council that the most appropriate location for the development, given the extensive size of the site and its relative isolation, should be a further extension of Weatherlees". However, Southern Water's assessment of the two sites, while giving a "very good" and "good" rating to Weatherlees on planning, environmental and land issues, as against only "average" at Foreness, had given a "very good" financial rating to Foreness and a "very poor" financial rating to Weatherlees. In short, it had become clear that finance was overriding all other considerations.

The then Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), wrote on 6 January 1998 that the way we use water is an important environmental issue and the Government is committed to the sustainable use of this resource. The Urban Wastewater Treatment Regulations (1994) already place water companies under a duty to re-use waste water wherever appropriate". In July 1998, I wrote to the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), asking him to receive a small delegation from the Foreness Point environmental action group. He responded swiftly and courteously, met us and listened sympathetically to our concerns. He made it plain that he, at least, was personally concerned by the environmental issue and the prospects for the conservation and re-use of water—issues that we had raised.

Southern Water's first Foreness plan required land purchase from Thanet district council. True to the position expressed by its planning officer, the council announced on 2 October 1998 its objection to the compulsory purchase by Southern Water of land at Foreness Point and the Rendezvous, Margate". The then leader of the council, Councillor Coppock, said on that day: This has little to do with the sale of land and more to do with finding the right solutions for the 21st Century. Only this week it was reported that the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, had named Thanet as an area of concern for discharge for sewage. This is clearly not an appropriate place for this development and the land is not up for grabs". I next wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on behalf of my constituents lodging formal objection to the proposed compulsory purchase order. On 5 November, I was gratified to receive a response from my friend the then Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), informing me that it has been decided that a local public inquiry will be held to consider Southern Water's application and the objections to it". As the Minister may imagine, my constituents were elated to learn that, at long last, this issue of vital national as well as local importance was to be fully and properly examined. It was plain, however, that Southern Water wished to avoid exposing the paucity and the venal nature of their arguments to public scrutiny. Southern Water wrote to me, saying: As you may be aware additional treatment is now necessary … we will therefore be re-visiting our plans to incorporate the necessary treatment processes in line with Environment Agency guidelines and as a result our current compulsory purchase order at Foreness Point is no longer appropriate and we have notified the Department that we will not longer proceed with this". Therefore, the long-awaited public inquiry fell through. However, by that time, concerns over the future of water provision for domestic, industrial and agricultural use were increasing throughout east Kent and beyond.

Pfizers, the major pharmaceutical company based at Sandwich, had raised the issue, with other structural matters, with Thanet district council in relation to its future investment plans. Farmers were reporting a shortage of water to wash potatoes for delivery to supermarkets. The spectre of a massive house-building programme was raising its head, and serious environmental concerns were being expressed about the salination of the River Stour, as decreasing water flows led to salt water encroaching higher upstream at high tide.

On 3 September 1999, Southern Water's new plan for an even larger scheme at Foreness became clear. In a letter, it stated: We are about to submit a new planning application to Kent County Council to install further treatment at Margate Wastewater Works. To house our new equipment we are proposing to extend our Margate Wastewater Works underground". At a public exhibition held at Foreness Point, on 14 October 1999, it became clear that a second chamber—as large again as the existing one—would be required; that the site would cover 10 acres; that the task would entail massive earthworks, excavation and disruption over a number of years; that millions of gallons of high-quality effluent would still be wasted daily; and that Southern Water still intended to pump raw sewage, during summer bathing season storms and winter storms, through a 300 m outfall into the sea.

There was, fleetingly, some sign that Southern Water's management was beginning to listen. In response to questions, Southern's project manager said: Our preferred option is now Weatherlees … we expect to apply for a discharge licence for the Stour next week". However, on 25 October, Southern backtracked, saying in response to my inquires: Developing Weatherlees was reconsidered when research indicated that there was some spare physical capacity which would allow the site to provide the full treatment required for Margate and Broadstairs flows. We made an informal approach to the EA"— the Environment Agency— and the response was so firmly negative that we concluded it would be pointless to pursue the matter particularly"— and here we go again— since it would involve an economic premium over the Foreness Point option". The Environment Agency, charged with the protection of the environment and its resources, has to its eternal shame once again failed thoroughly to investigate a situation and is instead now sheltering behind the argument that we have no discharge licence application from Southern Water to respond to". Southern Water's own publication, "Working Together to save Water", states: We are now using more water than ever before. Compared to only a decade ago more homes are using washing machines and dishwashers and gardening as a hobby is far more popular. These factors are compounded by a steady increase in population. Added to these man-made challenges are the natural ones. Most scientists are now predicting that the climate change will increase the chance of long hot summers and shorter, warmer winters in the South East. It is generally believed that there will be more exceptionally dry summers like 1995. If we do not reduce the growth in demand for water pressure on the environment will increase as we need to take more from underground sources and rivers or build more reservoirs. We at Southern Water take a long-term view and believe that everyone should have enough water for their essential needs for the future. The development of new sources of supply is often costly in both environmental and economic terms and, therefore, it makes sense to make best use of existing resources before developing new ones". One of those existing resources is the potential for recycling effluent.

How can it be right, in this day and age, to continue to pump millions of gallons of water into the sea all around the coast of the United Kingdom in the face of the warning that I have just read from Southern Water? Is this to be a long-term or a short-term view?

I began by saying that in 1989 I opened the futuristic treatment plant at Foreness. Since that time Governments and the European Union have changed the rules several times. How long will it be before the EU, recognising that we can no longer go on wasting water, bans sea outfalls entirely?

Will the new proposals themselves be obsolete in a few years and after yet more disruption, leaving us to look inland again and say "I told you so"?

I believe that the Minister is sympathetic to this cause. I believe that, in the national interest, the time is right to hold a full public inquiry into the science, the technology

and the long-term environmental impact of the continued use of sea outfalls matched against the opportunity for the recycling of effluent.

It is not a local matter. We have the opportunity to reach a benchmark decision and take a quantum jump into a future for which our children and our grandchildren will bless us as the climate changes.

I believe that Southern Water, and indeed all water companies serving coastal areas, that have enjoyed a proud record of innovation in the past, should abandon what is essentially a 19th century system of outfalls and blaze a trail for tomorrow's technology.

It is clear that Kent county council, while not seeking to shirk its planning responsibilities, has come to recognise that this is not just a local issue, but a national one and would welcome a decision based upon a thorough examination of the facts.

I urge the Minister to call in this application swiftly and equally swiftly to instigate an inquiry so that we can get on with the real job of protecting our environment and providing enough water for the needs of the future that Southern Water and I agree that "everyone should have".

10.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) put his case forcefully and has obviously taken a long-term interest in the matter. I have listened with care to his arguments.

Let me begin by assuring the hon. Gentleman that the Government aim to achieve the highest possible environmental standards consistent with ensuring value for money. We reversed the policy of the previous Government, which could have allowed sewage to continue being discharged into our coastal waters after receiving only primary treatment. Instead, we told water companies in England and Wales that we would require all significant coastal discharges to receive a minimum of secondary treatment. We asked them to install secondary treatment at relevant discharges, including Margate and Broadstairs, as soon as practicable.

We also have a well-established policy to protect identified bathing waters. We have announced a programme for England and Wales designed to raise consistent compliance with the mandatory standards in the EU bathing waters directive to 97 per cent. by 2005, and to achieve a significant improvement in compliance with guideline standards, particularly at major holiday resorts.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are a number of bathing beaches along the Thanet coast, including up to eight beaches, from St. Mildred's Bay to Broadstairs, that are affected by the existing discharges at Margate and Broadstairs.

The policy framework means that wherever the treatment works serving the joint catchment of Margate and Broadstairs is eventually located, the standards of treatment applied will ensure that people living there will have a cleaner, safer environment that protects their beaches and the sea from pollution. That is a substantial gain under all circumstances and we should not lose sight of it.

The choice of location of a sewage treatment works serving Margate and Broadstairs is not a matter for Government at this stage. It is a matter for the commercial judgment of Southern Water Services, subject to planning controls and regulation by the Environment Agency. Well-established procedures are already in place for public consultation and scrutiny of the proposals.

The processes—obtaining planning permission, compulsory purchase of land, and obtaining a discharge consent—are subject to public consultation and appeal procedures, including, ultimately, the possibility of appeal to the Secretary of State, should the applications be refused. The Government also encourage water companies to engage in full consultation with local communities about any proposals for new development.

The House will appreciate that it would be wrong for me to make any comment at this stage on specific proposals that might ultimately come before the Secretary of State for determination, but it may be helpful if I set out my general appreciation of the current situation. In so doing, I shall attempt to respond to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Southern Water's original intention was to upgrade a treatment works at Foreness point to combine the two existing flows from Margate and Broadstairs. In the light of the Government's requirement for higher levels of treatment, Southern Water revised its original proposals. Those will now require more land—although I understand that there will be no permanent loss of public open space—and additional plant and machinery. The company has applied for planning permission on that basis. I understand that Kent county council will shortly consider that planning application.

The scheme that is now proposed at Foreness point will deliver top of the range levels of treatment, including ultra violet disinfection. The Environment Agency predicts that the new levels of treatment will allow bathing waters in the area to comply with guideline standards under the EU bathing waters directive. It is wrong to imply that raw sewage would be discharged from the new works. It is true that storm overflows, which operate during periods of exceptional rainfall, will be retained, but those would be needed for any scheme, irrespective of its location. They will operate to standards specified by the agency that are designed to protect bathing beaches in the area.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that there is a better alternative for treatment and disposal of sewage from Margate and Broadstairs, at Weatherlees. He has asked for the Secretary of State to call in the planning application to explore more fully the relative merits of the two possible locations.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

My hon. Friend has raised a point on which I have common cause with the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale).

Mr. Gale

This is out of order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. It is not out of order for the Minister to give way to an intervention. If the hon. Member who seeks to intervene had wished to contribute to the debate before the Minister started speaking, the hon. Gentleman would have had to seek permission. He is allowed to intervene and it is up to the Minister whether he gives way.

Dr. Ladyman

I am grateful to you for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for North Thanet will be aware that I have common cause with him on certain points of this matter and, in fact, it was my influence with Thanet district council, as a district councillor before 1999, that led to its opposition to the original scheme. I have an open mind about the current proposals, but Weatherlees is in my constituency and my key question now is—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps I should add to my earlier remarks the observation that interventions should be extremely brief.

Dr. Ladyman

I shall endeavour to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Environment Agency tells me that it is an open question as to whether the effluent that would go into Weatherlees would cause any harm, but is certain that the effluent that has been proposed for Foreness point would cause no harm. That is the point on which I require clarification.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister should now respond.

Mr. Mullin

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall come to the question of effluent in a moment. The Secretary of State can call in planning applications if he considers that they raise planning issues of more than local importance, but the question of re-use of waste water, while undoubtedly important, is not a planning issue. The Secretary of State would be acting outside his powers to use the planning system to explore that matter. It is for the water company to decide which proposals to put before the planning authorities and the regulator.

Southern Water has discussed informally with the Environment Agency the alternative option of diverting the flow from Margate and Broadstairs to Weatherlees. The hon. Member for North Thanet has suggested that the Environment Agency is not doing its job, because it has not carried out a formal appraisal of the alternative scheme at Weatherlees. In the absence of a formal application for discharge consent and of the scientific information that would come with that, the Environment Agency cannot make a full assessment of the treatment standards that would have to apply. However, it has made some clear and, I consider, persuasive points about the considerations that would apply.

First, the River Stour already carries a very heavy effluent load arising from other treatment works that discharge into it. The plant at Weatherlees already serves a population equivalent to about 89,000 people. The agency considers that those loads already are close to the maximum that can be carried without a risk of environmental impact. Adding the sewage from Margate and Broadstairs would more than double the existing load at Weatherlees. If true, that would seem to be fatal to the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Secondly, the Stour estuary is an environmentally sensitive area. There is potential for impact on bathing beaches nearby, which Weatherlees was originally constructed to protect.

The treatment standards for a plant at Weatherlees would need to be more stringent than at Foreness Point to achieve the same level of protection for the receiving waters. Even well-treated effluent contains micropollutants which, if not dispersed, can have adverse effects on organisms in the receiving water.

The Government share the hon. Gentleman's concern to encourage beneficial use of waste water, as does the Environment Agency. In fact, that has already been achieved for several sewage treatment works in the area, but there are difficulties in this case. Water discharged at Weatherlees would add to the volume of fresh water in the estuary but, as I have explained, it would also add to the pollution load there.

If it were to be used for abstraction purposes, the sewage would have to be piped five miles or so up river to be discharged above the abstraction point. That would be in addition to the six miles or so of pipes that would need to be constructed to bring the sewage to Weatherlees from Margate and Broadstairs. I readily concede that that is not an impossible task, but it would add to the expense and complexity of the scheme.

As I said, the choice of location rests in the first instance with Southern Water. The company has told me and the Environment Agency that Foreness Point is its preferred option and that it has decided not to pursue the option of Weatherlees. It will be necessary to test the acceptability of these revised proposals, remembering that they will deliver a higher level of treatment.

In my view, the right option—and I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for North Thanet—is to allow this process to run its course without further delay.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.